| 9°C Dublin

John Kelly: It is at last being recognised that private colleges make an essential contribution to higher education

IN the reviews by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) currently in progress on the future of higher education in Ireland, it is vital that the contribution of the private colleges is taken into consideration.

These colleges are increasingly making a major contribution in a highly competitive educational landscape to meet the demand for higher education, yet the Government does little to help them or their students except to collect the tax on their staff salaries and on the colleges' profits, which don't add up to much in these difficult days.

No support is given to the private colleges' students who typically have to pay €5,000 to €6,000 per annum fees for a full-time course. Student state maintenance and fee grants are permitted only to students taking "approved courses" in "approved institutions" and this effectively rules out all students in the private colleges.

Furthermore, post-graduate students in the private colleges cannot apply for grants from the state funding agencies, such as the HEA's Programme for Research in Third level Institutes, (PRTLI) or the Irish Research Council. This contrasts with the situations in many other countries, in particular the USA and the UK where, in general, private college students are treated no differently to those in the publicly funded institutions in relation to state financial support.

With close to 70pc of our young people now seeking third level education, plus increased participation in the "back to education" movement, the public universities and institutes of technology are creaking under the strain.

Whilst no hard data are currently available, it is probable that there are in excess of 20,000 students in the private colleges such as the DBS, Griffith College, Independent College Dublin, Hibernia College, the American College Dublin and the many others.

It is therefore appropriate to suggest to Tom Boland, the CEO of the HEA, when he says "we have to find a way to sustain and fund higher education", that he takes the private colleges into his reviews. In doing so he will have the support of his chairman, John Hennessey, who said: "The continuing demand for higher education can no longer be fully met by the publicly funded institutions." He noted: "The private colleges are often in a better position to deliver better programmes."

The claim by Mike Jennings, Secretary General of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, that such a development would endanger educational standards is difficult to understand. The course accreditation and quality assurance criteria imposed by the State are much more stringent for the private colleges than they are for the university sector.

It is anomalous that while the State gives zero financial supports to the private colleges and their students, it controls the accreditation process for the programmes they offer in a very rigorous and, indeed, effective way through the Higher Education and Training Awards Council (HETAC) organisation.

In contrast, the universities, which are funded entirely by the State, have no accreditation procedures imposed by the State on the new courses which they introduce.

Throughout the world, the rate of increase in student participation in higher education is many times greater for the private colleges than for the state institutions.

In the US, 12pc of students in higher education are in the private colleges, and rising. In the UK, the Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts is in the process of opening up the higher education sector to allow private colleges meet the increasing demand for places. He has allocated 20,000 state-funded places to private colleges whose fees are less than £7,500 per annum. Furthermore, in an extraordinary initiative, he is allowing private colleges with 1,000 or more full-time equivalent students in degree programmes to call themselves universities.

While there is some criticism of these developments, it is at last being universally recognised that private colleges are making an essential contribution to the higher educational needs of young people today.

I have spent most of my academic career in the state university system, both in Ireland and in the USA, and I loved it dearly. As a disciple of Newman and his 'The Idea of a University', I suppose I would have been quietly critical of the private colleges in those days, noting that they cherry-picked those courses which would turn in a profit with student participation, whereas we had to maintain many non-profitable courses such as Old Irish or Greek.

This, of course, is true, but higher education in the private colleges is a different world altogether. The courses are unashamedly chosen and structured to meet the current immediate labour needs of the industrial marketplace, and where it is calculated that the enrolment will result in a profitable enterprise, or at worst in a break-even situation.

It is an exciting and financially challenging operation, where financial control from the top is essential but where academic standards are maintained at the highest international levels, and where the student is the most important person in the whole operation.

Despite this, the business is still one of education, drawing the students' minds out to new concepts. Besides the imparting of skills, the process of intellectual self-discovery is still predominant, as in the university world.

Admittedly, the research output from staff and students does not compare to that of the universities -- the lecturers and professors are paid to teach, and not to do research. Many do, of course, and the involvement of the students in research in their under and post-graduate courses is an essential curriculum component.

Courses are designed to meet the needs of many young students, in particular those who have to combine work with their studies. Class times are arranged to be convenient for working students.

Private colleges have adapted more quickly than the universities in developing online courses to suit students working at their own pace at home -- which may be in Ireland or in India.

It is hoped, therefore, that in the restructuring of the higher education domain in Ireland, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn and HEA's Tom Boland will arrange that greater support is given to the students in the private colleges, in particular by including them in the state maintenance and fee grants schemes, as well as by allowing the post-graduate students to compete for research grants on that elusive level playing field with the students in the university world.

This would be the proverbial win-win arrangement for both the State and the students in the private colleges and a new era in Ireland's higher education would be launched.

John Kelly is former Registrar in UCD and currently President Independent College Dublin

Irish Independent